Always Reaching for the Sky

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with an eye toward a greener city, the durst family builds a legacy

by christopher moore

helena durst remembers one of the lessons she learned from her grandfather.

"my grandfather said, 'you need to be able to walk to all your properties,'" recalled durst, who is part of a family of builders who have had a significant impact on the west side of manhattan.

she liked her grandfather's idea, and she thinks of it today as she walks the streets of the city, especially when heading to her workplace on sixth avenue and 43rd street. she sees the little-and not so little-reminders of her family's legacy. like when she strolls by manhattan plaza, a durst development on west 43rd street between ninth and tenth avenues, aimed at working artists. durst likes the moments when she stumbles on a spot like that, a place "to see something that's a social benefit-to know that my family had some part in it."

durst's grandfather, joseph, arrived in the city with $13 sewn into his lapel. thirteen years later, according to the company's history, he bought his first office building on west 34th street. as buildings were bought and sold along the way, a success story was born. it continues to this day, with durst's grandsons kristoffer, douglas and jonathan all playing key roles in the company.

helena durst is there, too, serving as a vice-president. she's also netted headlines for her work on environmental issues. the new york observer cheered her for "greening gotham." among the projects she's touched: the durst organization's helena structure on west 57th street, a premier rental building that debuted in 2005, and the bank of america tower at one bryant park. that building is, as the durst web site puts it, "the world's most environmentally responsible high-rise office building." indeed, the site outlines the company's construction policies for the project, which include: using 35 percent recycled materials; installing waterless urinals, saving 3.4 million gallons of water each year; piping coolant through ice; housing its own co-generation plant; and installing a green roof and rainwater storage plants.

all of this is just part of the durst family legacy. the company has been the owner, builder and manager of business and apartment buildings in midtown for several generations.

helena durst is hardly alone. she likes that she lives in west midtown, so near so many family members, like her father, brother, sister, aunts and uncles. but in a high-profile business in a city that constantly measures success, she has managed to stand out, partly with her concern for the environment. building green "is actually easier than you think," durst said. selecting between making money and protecting the environment turns out to be a false choice, she argued.

"we think of it as building a better building," she said, adding that there are practical, everyday choices that builders can make to create a more sustainable environment.

she's proud of the buildings the durst family created over the years, especially in the heart of the city. she pointed to "our effect in times square, the revival of times square." she remembered as a 10-year-old being in that area and thinking of it as "so very dangerous." this is another age.

"i feel much safer," she said. "i would think that bryant park would be the best example of that."

for durst, it was not a given that she would wind up in midtown in the family business. after attending baruch college, she went to live for a while out in washington state, and she considered careers as a writer or an english teacher.

"i realized i really wanted to make a difference in the world," she said, and that there was a great deal of potential right there in the family business. the bottom line was, she added, "i did not want to throw away an opportunity."

she didn't. instead she returned to the city and became a vital part of it. she likes the west side, the activity and the energy and the sense of being part of the social and political issues of the day. she sees them play out, right there on the streets she's walking.

"i definitely think of myself as a west sider," she said. "what makes it so special to me is the diversity. and the west side is a reflection of what is going on. for better or worse, the west side mirrors the city's political issues and tensions."

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